Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What's the big deal about silks?

As anyone who has purchased one of my charts will notice, I stitch my models in silks. I do offer a conversion to cotton though, just so you know! As far as my personal stitching goes, 99% of that is in silks too.

So why silks?

I've been stitching for a long time. About 25 years with a few years of breaks in between. For the first 2o of those, I stitched in cotton, with the odd little bit of metallic here or there. Then I discovered silk. My first experience with silk was with AVAS, which, though not nearly as shiny or glossy as some, is a dream to stitch with. The difference between this and cotton was like night and day. This started me on a quest to try other silk threads and at this point in time, I can say I've tried about 40 different brands, types and weights. Some I love, some I like and some I wouldn't touch again. Even up to two years ago, I still had plans to stitch some larger projects in cotton, because of the cost difference, but those have been left by the wayside. Large HAEDs which I got halfway through before this obsession started have been forgotten, and will never be finished. They may be restarted though. ;)

So what's the big deal? They are incredibly soft and the feeling in your hands is wonderful. It's like petting a little kitten - addictive!! You just want to keep petting it because it feels so nice. They have a wonderful shine. This ranges between a high gloss look that some of the filament silks have, and a shimmery sheen that the spun silks have. And honestly, looking at a skein won't give you a proper idea of this - you have to stitch with it to really appreciate the gorgeous effect. Most silks glide through the fabric effortlessly - a good analogy I've heard used frequently - like a hot knife through butter. This is exactly what it's like. You don't get a scratchy friction of the thread on the fabric with most silks.

Does it really look and feel that different?

Yes. No question about it. Cotton feels like twine to me now, I just don't enjoy working with it. It's not fun. It's a chore. I've been spoiled and I freely admit it. I look at my pieces done in cotton and while they are very pretty, they just don't have the same effect. The depth of colour seems brighter and richer on silk, the light reflection is amazing, especially on specialty stitches! I've heard a lot of people say that once you stitch you can't tell the difference. There is a notable difference, I certainly can pick it out, and most people who stitch with silks on a regular basis will be able to see it as well. On plain cross stitch, it isn't obvious from a distance, but when you look a little bit closer, it is apparent. Cotton has a little bit of sheen from the mercerizing process, but washing, sunlight, wear and tear while stitching and simply overhandling thread will cause this sheen to wear away. Cotton just isn't a naturally shiny fiber. Silk is. You don't need to use chemical treatments on it to make it shimmer and shine, it just does that all by itself. And it will still be shiny 100 or 200 years from now. Why is that important? Well I'd like to hope that my projects, especially my models, will still hang in my families houses generations down the road!

Isn't it ridiculously expensive to work in silks all the time?

That depends on a lot of things. First, on the type of projects you're kitting up. If you are talking about a piece with hundreds of colours, then yes, it can get very expensive. However, on a piece that uses that many colours, there are several less expensive silks, like HDF and Eterna, that work wonderfully. These end up costing about double to triple what it would cost in DMC - but, for a project that will probably take years to stitch, that cost doesn't seem so bad to me. I'd rather spend the extra at the start than either not enjoy it and/or not finish it at all.

On a project that is monochrome or uses only a couple of colours, the cost difference isn't as drastic, especially if you're converting from hand dyed cottons to hand dyed silks. Just as an example, a project that uses 5 colours, 2 skeins each of Crescent Colours cottons will use 5 colours, 1 skein each of Crescent colours silk. The cost difference on average (as not all shops charge the same amount for these) is $12.50. That doesn't seem so bad does it? On a monochrome that uses 10 skeins of Weeks Dye Works the cost difference to use something like Gloriana would be less than $10.

A lot of people gripe about the cost of some of the huge projects, like Chatelaines that use several different brands of silks, beads and crystals. Some of these can range up to $400. Yes, that's expensive, and yes, it would be much cheaper to do in cotton. But for someone like me, if I kitted it up with cotton I would never work on it. And with a project like this, to me it loses the intricacies and subtle beauty of the variegated threads when you sub solid colours in for them. Plus, this is a project that is going to take hundreds of hours. I can live with a cost of less than $1 an hour to stitch something that beautiful.

One of the biggest myths I'd like to touch on is one I hear a lot, from a lot of stitchers in this area who have never tried silk, OR who have used ghastly rayon threads thinking that they were silk. This is the myth that silk is more difficult to stitch with than cotton.

Filament silk, which is notable because of it's incredibly high shine and extremely silky softness, is in most cases, more fussy than cotton. In most cases, it's not knotting or tangling that is the problem, but the fact that the silk catches on EVERYTHING. This isn't true of all brands, most of the really tough ones to use are flat, untwisted silks. I've used several types that aren't bad at all. Eterna's Mini Twist is fairly nice to use, and AVAS Soie D'Paris is just lovely to stitch with. Neither of these is harder to use than cotton. There are ways around the problems, hand creams, hand treatments like sugar/cream, anything that will smooth out rough spots on your hands helps. The effect these silks give though, is absolutely amazing - it's worth the little bit of aggravation, I swear it!! Sections of satin stitch done in these is incredible to look at, it really is.

However, most silks on the market, and most silks used by designers are spun silk. These do not have the problems that filaments do. You may still need to use a good hand cream (make sure it is needlework safe and fully absorbed before stitching!) because some brands can catch, but in my experience, it's not a huge problem. And believe me, I spend half my day at work with my hands in chemical sanitizers, degreasers and antibacterial solutions and my hands are a frightful mess, but I don't have a major issue with spun silks.

If anything, spun silks are easier to use than cotton. This is the reason I choose them over cotton. If they were more difficult, I'd enjoy my cotton projects more, now, wouldn't I? They don't tangle up as badly as cotton, they don't fray as badly as cotton. Some are better than others in how they behave, and as I said earlier, there are some brands I just refuse to use because they just don't measure up. Spuns silks, on the whole, will make for a wonderful stitching experience.

Another little side note - when I used to use cotton, everything was about finishing a project. I used to celebrate a finish much more, because it was a "PHEW, I'm glad that's done!". Now, I have more WIPs than I can count, and I don't care with most of them if I ever finish, I just enjoy working on them! It's the process of stitching that I love, and the finish is just a bonus.

And one last item I'd like to touch on, and a HUGE myth that I hear frequently. Silks aren't washable.

Silks ARE washable, no matter what anyone tells you. What I find really amusing about this, is that people will use hand dyed cottons without question, but will complain about a silk that runs. In my experience, hand dyed cottons are much worse for bleeding than any silk I've ever used!! And many cottons will actually lose colour - it's not just loose dye molecules that are being washed away, but that the dye isn't completely set. I've never had a silk fade like that when washed. Whether a silk will bleed when washed is entirely dependent on the dying process. Some are pretty darn good as far as being colourfast, others not so good. Bright or dark colours and reds tend to run on many different brands.

The easiest way to deal with bleeding is to keep your work clean, keep your hands clean, and not wash it. We all know that this isn't always possible though, so here are some things to keep in mind with ANY fibers you intend to wash.

Wash it before you start. You want to know if your work will be safe when you wash at the end? Rinse the fibers first to wash away any loose dye molecules. Do this until the water runs clear, and there isn't any colour transfer to a clean white towel or white paper towel. It's a bit time consuming, but it can save you a ton of heartache/headache. I don't do this, because I almost never wash my finished work, BUT, I always test a small amount of each colour before I stitch, so if disaster strikes, I know what I'm up against. Thankfully, most fibers I've used are pretty colourfast. AVAS isn't, most colours of that will bleed, but I've had pretty good results with HDF, Eterna, Waterlilies, Gloriana, Belle Soie, NPI. However, DO NOT expect that because I've had good results, that you will too, and make sure you test your fibers first. It IS worth the time.

As far as testing goes, to be completely sure I recommend testing even DMC or Anchor. I've had DMC run on me in the past, so it's not failsafe either.

One of the biggest draws to silk for me, is the vast number of different threads I get to experiment with. Some are dyed on the same silk base by different companies, but a lot of them are very different from one another. Different thicknesses, different shine, different feel. And oh the colours!!! Each different dyer has colours that no one else does, and this makes them soooo much fun. Cotton over dyed threads are pretty much all dyed on DMC or Anchor. So there really isn't any difference except the colours. Well since I don't particularly like DMC OR Anchor (though I find Anchor more bearable than DMC) I'm really not going to go out of my way playing with colours. When I do find a colour I like, I will do everything I can to find a silk alternative. I was SOOOO incredibly happy when Carrie of Carrie's Creations announced a line of silk, since I like her colours but I shied away from them because I didn't like the way they stitched.

Before you ask, no. I'm not rich. I'm definitely working class, and I don't have all that much money to spend on stitching. So what I do have I'd much rather spend on items that I love. I'd rather save up for 3 months to kit up a project that will cost a couple hundred dollars than spend $50 and never stitch it. If I resigned myself to using cotton, I'd probably give up stitching. Yes. I'm that spoiled. :)


  1. Thank you so much for your comments about using silk thread, I'm just beginning to move to making samplers and wanted to try silk and you've given me so much helpful information I can proceed with much more confidence.